New musical drama is bold and brave
Bingo! Seen at Assembly Hall, Edinburgh Touring until April 21 Ceilidh Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow Touring until March 31 Spring Awakening Seen at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow Playing Dundee Rep, March 22-5
MUSICAL theatre is not, for various historical reasons, Scottish culture’s strongest suit. Unusually, the three latest productions are two musicals and one show with a strong dimension of music and song.
Bingo!, a new co-production by Scottish women’s theatre company Stellar Quines and Grid Iron is a startlingly bold new musical. A comic melodrama set in a Scottish bingo hall, written by Anita Vettesse and Johnny McKnight, with music by Alan Penman, it’s like a socialist-feminist version of River City written by Stephen Sondheim.
TV may ring to the sound of ads for male-oriented online betting companies but for two million women across the UK, bingo is still the gambling (and social) game of choice. It’s not often that theatre offers us strongly-drawn, working-class, female characters. Vettesse and McKnight give us five (plus male bingo hall worker Donny, played with typically camp chutzpah by the brilliant Darren Brownlie).
Donny’s work colleague Betty (Jane McCarry of Still Game fame) is getting hitched. She, Donny and a bunch of their bingo pals are looking forward to her hen party in Las Vegas, organised by travel agency worker Daniella (the always impressive Louise McCarthy).
Daniella’s mother Mary (Wendy Seager on superbly fearsome form) is the archetypal grande dame of the bingo hall. Brash and larger than life, she is in very palpable conflict with Daniella, who, it transpires, has done something very bad (like, REALLY bad!). There will, one fears, be fireworks.
The ensuing drama, directed by Jemima Levick, is very much a musical of two halves. The first act is a work of delicious comedy (for example, Mary, who is filling two bingo books simultaneously, is “double fisting”).
Vettesse and McKnight’s characters are an impressive combination of comic cartoonishness and genuinely humane pathos. This is certainly true of new mum Ruth (played by the tremendous Jo Freer) and eccentric old lady Joanna (performed with hilarious vigour by Barbara Rafferty).
Despite its strong opening, the show (which runs to an unnecessarily long two-anda-half hours) overstays its welcome on Carys Hobbs and Becky Minto’s deliciously garish set. Partly this is due to a turn to more serious subject matter (money, low pay, poor selfesteem and broken trust), but mainly it’s an issue of structure.
A carefully considered cut of half an hour of material would, one suspects, enable this fabulously cast, often uproariously funny, sometimes quite moving musical to pack a stronger dramatic punch.
Ceilidh, the latest work from rising Gaelic company Theatre Gu Leor, isn’t so much a musical as a play with songs (and live music, and poetry, and storytelling). We, the audience, stand in for prospective investors in the dubious property company Macleod Heritage Development, which is seeking to monetise the glories of Harris. As Lisa (played with convincing commercial cynicism by Mairi Morrison) begins her pitch on the “investment opportunities” offered by her Retreat at Rodel, it turns out to be enough to raise a long dead poet. Cue Mairi Ruadh (the gloriously angry, warm and uninhibited Muireann Kelly) who breathes new life into the English speakers who are running this mercantile ceilidh. The magical transformation of Lisa, her daughter Eilidh (MJ Deans) and her friend, musician Eddie (Calum MacDonald) into Gaelic speakers is as ingenious as it is laden with historical and cultural significance. As Gaelic becomes the show’s lingua franca, translations into English are provided for non-Gaelic speakers on screens throughout the performance space.
Mairi Ruadh rages against Lisa’s mercenary philistinism, filling the room with a muscular, earthy, untidy poetry that is the antithesis of the clean-lined property brochure. In turn, Eilidh falls in love with the language of her forebears and Eddie rediscovers his faith in the music of the Gaidhealtachd as a living tradition.
Written by Catriona Lexy Campbell and Mairi Sine Campbell, with dramaturgy by Lynda Radley, Ceilidh is a clever and inventive piece of theatre, built around an excellent central performance by Kelly.
From a small-scale Gaelic musical piece to a major production of a big stage rock musical. The subtleties of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s late-19th century play of anguished adolescence
Spring Awakening may not seem particularly well-suited to the musical theatre genre. However, that didn’t stop Steven Sater (book) and Duncan Sheik (music) from launching their version on Broadway in 2006.
This production for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and Dundee Rep (with a versatile school set, which is beautifully designed and lit by Kenneth MacLeod and Grant Anderson) gives clear expression to the contradictions in the piece. Despite the best efforts of musical director Robert Wilkinson and his fine band, Sheik’s score is at its sensitive best when drawing upon the elusive potential of the classical musical tradition.
Its guitar-led, pop music moments, by painful contrast, are akin to the sound made by one of those achingly bombastic Christian rock groups that emerged in churches in the 1980s. Despite such vulgarities, the RCS’s musical theatre performers give a fine account of themselves, with Max Alexander-Taylor particularly impressive as the young, humanist rebel Melchior Gabor, and Sarah Michelle Kelly compelling as his ill-fated girlfriend Wendla Bergman.
Rep director Andrew Panton fashions a tight production, while fine Rep Ensemble actors Ann Louise Ross and Barrie Hunter deftly play the adults.
Jo Freer, Jane McCarry, Darren Brownlie, Louise McCarthy in Bingo!